The Chan Gurney Municipal Airport came about out of the needs of wartime.
In the 75 years since its establishment on the north side of Yankton, the airport has served as the city’s front door, servicing airline passengers, avid flyers and local business needs alike.
And while the airlines may have left, the airport still has a major impact on the surrounding area.
What is now the Chan Gurney Municipal Airport got its start during World War II.
Steve Hamilton, secretary for the Yankton Regional Aviation Association, told the Press & Dakotan that the greatest need was expressed by an unlikely branch of the military.
“There was a need for pilots — especially Navy pilots,” Hamilton said. “Yankton had an airport and flight training going on, and the Navy wanted to go ahead and have a more improved airport that had true runways.”
He said the city’s first airfield was somewhat lacking.
“The original airport at Yankton was just a large field with a windsock,” he said. “People could land in any direction they wanted, and you’d always land into the wind. The Navy training, of course has to be done on specific runways. You have to learn how to deal with crosswind landings.”
The land for the new airport was bought in 1942 with the intent of having a naval cadet training program established.
However, Yankton almost lost the program altogether.
“The city kind of drug its feet a little bit, and the Navy was going to back out,” Hamilton said. “But Sen. Chan Gurney intervened a couple of times when deadlines were not met in terms of the new airport.”
The airport would be renamed after Gurney in April 1965.
Construction soon commenced on turf runways, a shop hangar for maintenance and a barrel hangar (which remains today) for aircraft storage. The airport was dedicated June 14, 1943.
Later that November, construction began on the “East Hangar” which is frequently known as the “Tile Hangar” today. The hangar was completed the following spring.
According to Hamilton, the War Training Service (WTS) program lasted from 1943-1944 and trained over 400 naval cadets who were housed, fed and instructed in ground courses at Yankton College.
Hamilton said the Yankton Airport was one of many in the region that produced badly needed pilots for the war effort.
“It was tremendously important,” he said. “It supplied 400 Navy pilots. Thousands were needed, and there were other air bases doing other things. Sioux City was training bomber crews. Watertown had Air Force activity up there too. Spearfish had a similar training program with Black Hills State University.”
Though the naval aviation program left well before the war ended, the airport provided one more service — housing German prisoners of war.
“They came over from Algona, Iowa,” he said. “They were here for a very short period of time doing riprap work on the Missouri River. They were housed in the tile hangar.”
The POWs worked in Yankton from April to July 1945 before moving on to Onawa, Iowa.
Moving On From The War
The airport’s usefulness didn’t end with World War II.
Hamilton said activity only increased with the war’s end.
“There was a Civil Air Patrol squadron here in Yankton,” he said. “There was a lot of flight training that continued on at the airport because, after the war was over, a lot of those pilots and military people came back home to their families and had become enamored with flying, so they just continued on.”
A flying club sprouted up in the late-1940s and was quickly followed by commercial airline service.
Between North Central Airlines — and successor Republic Airlines — and United Express, passengers were able to fly to Minneapolis and Denver at various points in the last 75 years.
“It was a really convenient service,” Hamilton said. “Unfortunately, it went away.”
For years, flights into and out of Yankton were made possible by the federal government’s Essential Air Service (EAS) program which helped subsidize airlines flying into smaller communities.
Community & Economic Development Director Dave Mingo told the Press & Dakotan that changes in the EAS brought commercial service to an end in Yankton.
“The Federal Aviation Administration does not have the EAS program available in the same format that it was,” Mingo said.
He added that, unless this changes, it’s almost certain that Yankton will not see airline service again in the near future.
“Providing commercial service in a community like Yankton is not sustainable for any private airline,” he said. “Unless the EAS program comes back in a manner that it was available before, it’s highly unlikely that we’d see commercial service like we had it before.”
According to Airport Supervisor Mike Roinstad, the airport has become an important hub of activity for many local businesses.
“We get a lot of general aviation that come in and out of here — both for fuel and people that just fly in here to visit family or business here in town,” Roinstad said. “We also see a lot of larger jets and corporate-type businesses that will come in. KPI is one; L&M Radiator and all of the large manufacturers in town will have larger jets that will fly in from their corporate offices. Everybody within about a 40-mile radius, manufacturing-wise, will fly into Yankton.”
Day To Day
At present, the airport handles around 3,800 operations (landings and takeoffs) per year. There are 43 planes based on site, including three owned by an aerial spraying operation. There are also 22 privately owned hangars with nine being built since 2012.
Roinstad said he and the staff do a lot to keep the airport in working order throughout the year.
“I have one full-time employee, and I have a part-time employee, and we have summer help that mows the grass and does general maintenance,” he said. “We do all of the snow removal in the winter time. All of the buildings that the city owns, we maintain. We do all of the fueling of all of the airplanes coming in and out.”
Mingo said the airport will be seeing some big changes in the next couple of years.
“We have a substantial apron and hangar relocation project that’s planned by the FAA, state division of aeronautics and the city scheduled for construction next year,” he said. “We went through a fairly lengthy environmental assessment process associated with the historic district on site there.”
He said that he sees a bright future for the airport.
“We anticipate business aviation will do nothing but continue to increase at Chan Gurney Airport,” he said. “In our airport layout plan for long-term improvements at the airport, we have included a north business development area where we want to get to a point where we market to and recruit aviation-related industry. We’ve got a whole layout for taxiways and buildings planned for that north end.”
In addition to more business opportunities and the apron expansion, Roinstad said the airport is working with consultant KLJ on the prospect of expanded hangar space for larger aircraft.
“There are a lot of aircraft-related businesses that need a larger airport to come in and out of,” he said. “There’s a large shortage in mechanics as far as smaller, general-aviation aircraft and larger turbine-driven aircraft. … That would be a huge draw for us if we can jump into the mechanic side.”
Yankton’s Front Door
Yankton’s airport serves many roles from business to agriculture.
But there’s one role that Hamilton is quick to note.
“It’s the front door,” he said. “A lot of businesses, when they come and think about coming to a town, one of the first questions they ask is, of course, ‘Is there an airport?’ because they need to move their executives in and out of communities on a timely basis so that they can carry on business. It’s one of the front doors for the Yankton community.”